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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Another silent gem making the rounds - The Ancient Law screens here

About a year ago I gave up writing monthly previews of classic films screening in Greater Boston, because, well, we have an abundance here, and most local cinephiles know the usual places to check out. Sometimes a film gets a public screening completely under the radar of general audiences, which certainly was the case with E.A. Dupont's 1923 feature The Ancient LawIt screened with live musical accompaniment at Boston's Temple Israel on January 16th, sponsored jointly by Boston Jewish Film and Jewish Arts Collaborative. The film has been making the rounds at various film festivals, notably the San Francisco Silent Film Festival last year, since it was restored in 2017 by the Deutsch Kinematek.

E.A. Dupont is probably best-known today for Varieté (1925) starring Emil Jannings, and Piccadilly (1929) starring Anna May Wong (I've been fortunate to see both films screened at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in recent years). A prominent director in Weimer era Germany, and also a Jew, Dupont fled Nazism for Hollywood in 1933, but was not particularly successful there, working off and on until his death in 1956. It's somewhat ironic, then, that a cinematic telling of a story similar to The Ancient Law (in the original German, Das Alte Gesetz) became such a sensation in Hollywood and beyond just a few years later, forever changing how we experience movies. That one, of course, is The Jazz Singer (d. Alan Crosland, 1927).

Ernst Deutch as Baruch and Avrom Moreski as his rabbi
father in a scene from The Ancient Law
The screenplay for The Ancient Law was written by Paul Reno, inspired by a true story of Jewish actor Bogumil Dawison who broke into Vienna's Burgtheater in the mid-1800s. The theater impresario was Heinrich Laube, who was portrayed as himself in the film by actor Hermann Vallentin. In the film, the young man, named Baruch, struggles with his ambition to become a stage actor against his orthodox Jewish tradition and the fierce opposition of his rabbi father. The narrative proceeds as you may think, but takes its time, with a lot of detail in the early scenes of small-town Jewish life in 19th century Eastern Europe contributing to the longish 2 hours 8 minutes running time. The filmmakers took care of every detail in the sets and costumes, enhanced greatly by the restoration of course, making the audience feel like we were traveling with Baruch from his Jewish shtetl to the grandeur of royal Vienna.

I was fortunate to attend a pre-screening reception to meet Alicia Svigals and Donald Sosin, the two musicians who jointly composed a new score for keyboard and violin, and have been performing it with the film as it tours. Sosin is an experienced, well-traveled silent film composer and performer, while Svigals, a prominent specialist in klezmer music, has just recently entered the world of composing for and accompanying a silent film. She shared with us that at first she was hesitant to get into the genre, but quickly gained her footing, aided of course by film veteran Sosin.

Their performance was masterful, as the duo cleverly wove scored music with improvisation. The blending of the Eastern European Yiddish folklore-style melodies--"fakelore" as articulated by Svigals-- with well-known synagogue cantorial pieces and Viennese classical excerpts sounded as authentic as Dupont could have ever imagined. The playing was confident, and each musician had the opportunity to shine alone with their instrument, as well as in duet. In a fun touch, about 10 lucky audience members enthusiastically contributed to the live soundtrack by shaking, at the appropriate festival scene, the 'graggers' that Sosin handed out before the film!

For those interested in a deeper dive into the perspective that the musicians shared, check out this video.  The score is now included on a recent DVD release of the film from Flicker Alley. Go here to check it out.
Alicia Svigals & Donald Sosin (from
For those for whom the name Ernst Deutsch may be familiar, it turns out he had an important but small role in the 1949 British noir classic also set in Vienna, The Third Man. Here he is as Baron Kurtz in that film.